Abigail Kampmann, 54
CEO, Principle Auto
Location: San Antonio
Education: B.A., political science and public policy studies, Duke University; LLM, taxation, New York University; J.D., Southern Methodist University
What drew you to the auto industry? My dad gave me this proposition. He said, “Why don’t you come over and you can have your law practice here and you can learn the car industry while you’re here and I’ll pay for your secretary?” And I was a partner at the largest law firm in San Antonio at the time. I was doing a lot of things and I kind of felt like I had gotten everything I wanted. And you know when you get to the top of something. And I wanted a new challenge, so when he offered me to get to learn the family business that he had been running, I took that opportunity.
First automotive job: 2002 was the first time I worked in the car industry (for her father’s dealership group, Performance Cos.). I worked in the corporate office, so I did audit, and then I started our HR department.
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Big break: It was doing the Infiniti store (in 2014). It was getting our first store on our own and it was a really small store and we competed against a lot of dealers across the nation, and it was really wonderful and exciting when they awarded us Infiniti of Boerne. We were able to build a store and create the team and hire everybody from scratch, which was awesome.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Always the biggest challenge is trying to get people to change. And I find that I have to work hard to have them grow and listen, so they can understand the benefits of change. If you just let them change and fail, that doesn’t [work]. You want them to succeed, so you want to really spend the time to have them see the benefits so they can put the effort in to make the change.
You’ve been in the industry 18 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? The Internet. Just to watch the Internet department grow and to see how all of these different third-party vendors have gotten into the space, it’s been pretty amazing just to see how everything’s changed.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? How important communication is. You need to remind people we’ve been doing business for a really long time, and we’re fortunate that we’re in a business where people need us, and so we’ll be here for a long time. But what’s happened is a lot of our associates, spouses and friends have lost their jobs, and it makes them very scared. And so our goal is to make sure that we communicate and make them feel safe and that we’re going to get through this together.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? I could have made some decisions earlier that would have had less pain if I had done them earlier. We were given [an Alfa Romeo-Fiat] franchise back in 2016 and it wasn’t doing very well. It was a new brand to the city, and we took a huge chance on them. We rented a building for three years, and I wouldn’t have done that with a brand-new franchise and spent that much money on something that was unknown. I know we take risks on things, but that was not a wise decision. And what I found out later was that we were the only franchisee to have those two brands together, and in order to make that brand work, it needed Maserati and we weren’t given Maserati. I didn’t have the ingredients that we needed to be successful in a new brand in a city that didn’t have a huge market. We returned the franchise to the manufacturer probably about 18 months after, and we should have done that much earlier because it was expensive.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? To get more women in the industry, you have to give them more flexibility and encourage them and pay them the same. You need managers and owners that very much respect women. And the way I would say it is: Just pretend they’re your daughter working for your company, and wouldn’t you want them to be successful? Women are really hard workers. And then when they do want to have a family, you need to give them that flexibility to make sure they stay engaged, because you can’t work a 60-hour week and have children and be happy. You can, but there’s very few women [who] have gotten there with a young family [who] didn’t have to take a step back during that time period.
If there were 25 hours in a day, how would you spend your extra hour? Cooking and preparing a meal for friends. I love cooking. I don’t get to cook enough because I’ve got too much on my schedule and I go home and I just eat what’s there, and I might make something really fast. But I love to do a two-hour meal, if I could prepare it all, and then entertain.
— Lindsay VanHulle